Flying Blind

When you don’t have time to prepare for a tournament as much as you might like, it’s important to have a plan. Brian shares the rules he tries to follow when he’s flying blind.

Playing Legacy is always a bit strange for me. I am someone who generally thrives on preparation. My biggest strengths in Magic are as someone who breaks down formats to their essential parts and identifies how best to fight against those systems—well, besides being able to bend reality to my will by writing an article about any community issue.

I am only able to truly bring those strengths to bear on a format in which I am able to spend a significant amount of time preparing. Legacy is not one of those formats. I have played in a grand total of one Legacy event outside of an SCG Open, SCG Invitational, or Grand Prix, and the opportunities I have to play in those out here in San Diego are few and far between. The format is a vast one, and my knowledge of its intricacies pales in comparison to players for whom it is their bread and butter. My normal testing process for Grand Prix involves lots of two-player queues on Magic Online. Not only do said queues not fire all that often for Legacy, but I also simply don’t have the cards to assemble any Legacy decks online, let alone a variety of them to choose from.

This means that I typically go into a Legacy event significantly less prepared than in other formats. It is certainly better to be able to spend the time to thoroughly test for a tournament, but you don’t always have that luxury. If there’s a PTQ coming up in a week but you’ve had a major term paper and two exams to study for, you can’t simply drop everything and head down to the local shop to playtest. But there are only so many opportunities to play in that kind of event, so you still want to compete, and it’s important to have a plan when you aren’t able to prepare as much as you might like. Here are the rules I try to follow when I’m flying blind.

Go With What You Know

If someone told you that Elves was the best deck in Legacy, how comfortable would you be picking up the deck the night before a tournament? I know I would feel totally clueless. I’ve played a lot of Llanowar Elves in my day, but I was using them to cast big creatures, not Glimpse of Nature. While there is a lot to be said for choosing a deck that is well positioned in the current metagame, it’s more important to play a deck that you feel comfortable piloting.

Perhaps the poster boy for this is Paul Rietzl. Due to his work schedule, it has been rare that Paul has been able to come out to a Pro Tour more than a few days early to playtest. As a result, he has played almost exclusively aggressive decks in those tournaments simply because those are the kind of strategies with which he has the most experience. Despite his lack of testing time, Paul has managed to post four Pro Tour Top 8 finishes, including a win—every one of them with aggressive white decks.

My personal preferences tend toward creature decks. Thankfully, despite all the Lion’s Eye Diamonds and Show and Tells out there, it’s still possible to spend your turns attacking and not be embarrassed about it. How do I know that? Well, I’ve done my homework . . .

Do Your Homework

There is an abundance of information available about almost any Magic format somewhere on the Internet, and even if you don’t have the time or resources to test for a tournament, you should be able to make time to study up on it. With Grand Prix Washington DC coming up, this week in particular has had a wealth of articles about Legacy on this website alone, with everyone from Drew Levin and Todd Anderson to Ari Lax and even Patrick Chapin chiming in on the format.

I’ve been devouring all of them. While I much prefer to come to conclusions through my own playtesting, the wisdom of others can make for a great shortcut.

Resources like the deck database here on StarCityGames.com are also phenomenal tools. Remember what I said about going with what you know? I was just searching for all Legacy lists in the past few months playing Knight of the Reliquary, which led me to a wide array of options:

Bant is a deck I’ve played before in Legacy to some degree of success. Being able to use both Knight of the Reliquary and Brainstorm in the same deck is pretty appealing, though this deck doesn’t really seem like it does anything particularly powerful. That’s been a problem I’ve encountered with the various Bant decks I’ve tried in Legacy over the years—they’re full of good cards, but they don’t have any free wins.

This deck is pretty interesting. The deck I’ve had the most experience with in Legacy is definitely G/W (I hate the name Maverick—I actually hate pretty much every Legacy deck name because they’re so random and incoherent). I shied away from playing G/W at the last Legacy GP I went to because it was a time when Miracles was a very popular deck, but it seems like it might be better positioned now. I like the inclusion of Deathrite Shaman and access to black for Thoughtseize. Even if it makes the mana base somewhat less stable, it gives you far better tools to interact with combo decks like Show and Tell that could otherwise give you trouble.

I also really like the inclusion of the Dark Depths / Thespian’s Stage combo. For those of you who are unaware, using Thespian’s Stage to copy Dark Depths immediately gives you a 20/20 since the newly copied Dark Depths does not have any ice counters. The best part about this is that the trigger is a state-based action—if your opponent tries to Stifle the trigger, it’ll just happen again immediately since the sacrifice is part of the resolution of the trigger, not an upfront cost.

One of the biggest problems that G/W decks have had historically is the ability to close the game out quickly when necessary against combo. The Dark Depths combo means a Knight of the Reliquary represents not only a potentially endless stream of Wastelands coming your way but also potential instant death. You can even combo off in a single turn if you have the Scryb Ranger to untap!

Because of this instant-win potential, I’m less convinced that Dark Confidant belongs in a deck like this. Confidant is great in grindy attrition-based matchups, whereas I feel this deck mostly resolves around establishing and protecting a Knight of the Reliquary. That’s a strategy I can get behind.

This deck, which finished in the Top 8 of the recent Bazaar of Moxen event in Europe, takes the last list and goes one step further. The Punishing Fire / Grove of the Burnwillows shell is one that I am quite familiar with, especially alongside Knight of the Reliquary since it was the engine behind the deck that won me my first Pro Tour in Austin. It not only offers excellent reusable removal against popular creatures like Delver of Secrets, Stoneforge Mystic, Dark Confidant, Mother of Runes, and more but also provides inevitability, plinking away at your opponent for one point of damage at a time.

This new tool does not come without a cost however. One of the biggest strengths of G/W has historically been the stability of its mana base, and the mana situation in this deck is much more precarious. The list has room for only a single basic land and not only requires four different colors of mana to operate everything but also uses multiple additional deck slots on mana creatures compared to most G/W decks, meaning that it is much more susceptible to drawing up hands with little to no action. Without Brainstorm to help mitigate flooding, this can be a very big deal.

Additionally, the added focus this deck has on spells means that it cannot effectively play Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Thalia is one of the most powerful tools G/W has in Legacy. So many decks in the format play extremely low land counts and rely on cards like Brainstorm and Ponder to piece their hands together. Not only does Thalia make it difficult for those decks to smooth out their draws, but combined with Wasteland it can completely lock them out of playing any spells at all. Thalia is especially powerful against tempo-style decks that rely on cards like Daze and Force of Will to keep their shields up while they present pressure on the board, against which you can otherwise have difficulty resolving your key spells like Knight of the Reliquary.

This version of the deck seems stronger against creature strategies and weaker against combo than the previous version. Specifically, it seems much stronger against Mono-White (aka Death and Taxes, another name I hate) because of the swap between Thalia and Punishing Fire, one of which is nearly dead and the other which is incredibly powerful in the matchup. My guess is that the tempo matchups are at best a wash if not in the favor of the three-color version, both because of the power of Thalia and because of the more stable mana base against Stifle and Wasteland.

Don’t Get Too Clever

This is generally a good rule, but it’s even more important in a format in which you have minimal preparation. Lots of players like to try to play unusual cards and decks, and as I’ve discussed before, that can already be a dangerous road to walk down even when you have a lot of experience in a format.

When I’m putting together my decks for a Legacy event, I generally assume that there are smart people building the lists I’m looking at and they made their choices for a reason. While I’ll certainly make slight changes based on my own experiences and reads on the metagame—at GP Atlanta last year, for instance, I played an extra Karakas and a third Scavenging Ooze in the maindeck of my G/W list because of the popularity of Griselbrand Reanimator—I don’t feel comfortable going in a direction that is entirely disparate from the wisdom of the crowds without the chance to do significant testing myself.

You may think it’s a great idea to play Emrakuls of your own to beat Show and Tell, but you’re going to feel mighty silly when they Gitaxian Probe you, realize what’s going on, and then just wait to set up Sneak Attack while you’re sitting with a bunch of uncastable Eldrazi in your hand. Recognize that in a format as large as Legacy that has been around for so long someone else has probably thought of the wacky idea you have and there’s a good reason no one is playing it. Save your innovation for when you have time to actually test and discover such things for yourself.

Be Powerful & Proactive

This is another big rule overall—and, in fact, what I view as the most important rule in all of deckbuilding. It is perhaps more important in Legacy than anywhere however. Legacy is such a broad format that it is more important than ever to have your own powerful and proactive plan to win the game. Try to think of a deck in Legacy that you would call a control deck. Miracles? That’s a deck that proactively works to set up Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top until it can cast a huge Entreat the Angels or something similar. Esper Stoneblade? The deck is called "Stoneblade" because it revolves around Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull, which allows it to present a threat early in the game.

Legacy is an incredibly diverse format. Even the most popular decks make up only maybe ten percent of any given field. How can you expect to build a control deck to contend with not only both RUG Delver and Sneak and Show but also Shardless BUG and Death and Taxes? Storm and Goblins? Belcher and Burn? Merfolk and Dredge? There is such a wide range of opposition that you can run into that it seems insane to try to build a deck with the goal of reacting to all of them.

Even outside of Legacy this rule is especially important when you’re coming in underprepared. Why does Paul Rietzl tend to default to aggressive decks for Pro Tours when he shows up just a few days before? Not only is it the archetype with which he is the most familiar, but it is also the kind of deck that requires the least specific format knowledge. You always have the same basic plan—attack your opponent until they are dead. Obviously the finer details matter, but it’s important to have a straightforward framework to work from when you don’t have time to familiarize yourself with the minutiae.

I leave for DC in the morning, and I still don’t know what I’m going to play. It’s almost certainly going to be some kind of Knight of the Reliquary deck or perhaps Mono-White (which I will still refuse to call Death and Taxes). What do you think? Knowing what you do about my preferences and the state of the Legacy format, what would you play if you were me?

Until next time,